How Green are our Councils?
In October 2019 East Sussex County Council (ESCC) declared a climate emergency. It set a target of achieving carbon neutrality from its activities as soon as possible and in any event by 2050, and committed to reporting annually on its progress towards meeting this target.
In February 2020 a Climate Emergency Plan was drawn up. It recognised that the Council can influence carbon emissions over three distinct zones:
• Emissions generated by its own corporate activities, such as the use of energy in its own buildings and transport activities;
• Emissions by third parties within its territory and functions, e.g. as authority for highways maintenance, waste disposal and education;
• Lobbying on national policy.
CREDIT: Katie Vandyck
As to the first set of emissions over which it has direct control, an annual target of 13% reduction was set, and has been surpassed over each of the first two years. It is admitted, however, that this has been achieved largely because of an increased proportion of renewable energy used in the National Grid, coupled with reduced levels of travel and other activities under Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions.
Cllr Nick Bennett, the Council’s lead member for resources and climate change, says: ““Becoming carbon neutral is not something that can happen overnight but we have made huge strides in recent years. Significant changes to our buildings and the way we work have helped us more than halve our carbon emissions since 2008 – equivalent to the annual energy use of more than 7,000 residents.”
“The authority has already switched to a 100 per cent renewable electricity tariff for streetlights and council buildings, has invested £1million from a recycling fund into improving energy efficiency and secured a further £480,000 of funding from the Government for the current financial year that, among other measures, is being used to install photovoltaic panels on council properties.
“We are aware that further reduction of CO2 use will be increasingly difficult as we work with the service providers of our services such as waste collection to reduce their own fossil fuel use. But we are preparing further plans with water companies, land managers, the Environment Agency, planning professionals and other responsible bodies to look at wider solutions around air and water quality, land use and cycling and walking routes.”
At a Council meeting two weeks ago a sum of £8.85m was resolved to be added to its budget for “reducing climate change and in improving the county’s highways for walkers, cyclists and motorists”. No breakdown has been offered for this figure, and it remains to be seen how much of it goes to greener forms of transport.
On the wider front, Cllr Bennett maintains that ESCC “will continue to work alongside our MPs and encourage them to provide strong direction and the resources we need to play our part and more in this global crisis. We want to work with everyone here in East Sussex who’s serious about tackling climate change and we thank everyone for what they are already doing.”
Critics of “fudge”
Not everyone is convinced, however, that the Council’s efforts in this direction are anything like sufficient. A fortnight ago pressure group Divest East Sussex delivered a giant ‘climate fudge’ birthday cake to County Hall in Lewes (12th October), as part of a mass protest (see HIP 187: Fudging the Climate Issues). They complain that ESCC is still refusing to divest the East Sussex Pension Fund (which covers Brighton and Hove, as well as East Sussex) from fossil fuels, and hasn’t endorsed the Climate & Ecological Emergency Bill “which would ensure that the UK plays its fair and proper role in limiting global warming to 1.5°C”. They also point out that the reduction of emissions by ESCC represents barely 0.5% of those for East Sussex as a whole. The Council may be the largest employer in the county, but it needs to do far more to nudge the activities of businesses and households in its territory towards greener energy use.
Green councillor for Hastings Old Town and Tressell, Julia Hilton, newly elected this year, acknowledges that there should be more engagement with the local community, with open meetings to discuss the changes that are needed. And, from her perspective, ESCC’s attitude to climate change is still ambivalent. She points out that, while claiming to be reducing carbon emissions, the Council supports the expansion of Gatwick airport and dualling of the A27 road. For schools transport there has been no commitment to electric vehicles.
Hastings – carbon neutrality by 2030
Meanwhile, at lower tier authority level, Hastings Borough Council (HBC) also enthusiastically declared a climate emergency in 2019, with a much more ambitious target of carbon neutrality by 2030. Its strategy document issued last year recognised that the main obstruction to attainment of this is poor housing stock and reliance on gas as principal household energy source. Changing these fundamentals will require hard cash, so a key aim is “to identify funding and investment partners to enable us to reduce our energy demand and emissions via retrofit and in retrofit/renewable energy skills development. Only by working in partnership, delivering funded initiatives and changing behaviour, do we have the opportunity to make significant progress towards [our] 2030 target.”
Cllr Hilton, who was also elected in May as HBC’s first Green councillor, agrees that housing should be the number one target. “The general approach seems to be that carbon neutrality can be achieved by electric cars and planting trees. Actually the thing that makes the biggest impact is insulation of housing. That brings about both carbon-saving and social justice, if it’s applied to everyone”, she says. “The conversation should be framed as how we can live a better life – with cleaner air, warmer homes, more recycling”.
However, she also urges that the local plan for Hastings, which is currently being revised, could and should be much more radical. “In Lewes, for instance, they are pushing to require new builds to have high energy efficiency, beyond standard building regulations. We could do that here.”
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